No situation in our world today has proven more contentious and seemingly unsolvable than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The insistence by Israel that the Holy Land is theirs by virtue of a gift from God, and the Palestinian claim that it is theirs because they were there first – well, hence the impasse.
A synod of the Catholic Church convened recently by the Vatican didn’t help the situation. Ostensibly the synod was called to discuss the problem of Christians being persecuted in the Middle East. But the closing session focused on the role of Israel.
Cyril Salim Bustros, a Lebanon-born Greek archbishop of Our Lady of the Annunciation in Boston, delivered the final statement at the synod. In his remarks, Bustros asserted that Israel was not entitled to occupy Palestine because God had rejected them as the chosen people. God’s new chosen people are Christians, and presumably he meant Catholic Christians, which doesn’t do much for the rest of Christianity either.
Actually, his view doesn’t help anyone. Whatever solution may or may not exist for the Israeli-Palestinian standoff, seeking to strip Judaism of its legitimacy as a world religion is not going to contribute positively to the matter.
I was immediately reminded of Richard L. Rubenstein’s powerful account of the Holocaust, “After Auschwitz.” In this breathtaking book, Rubenstein describes the process by which the Nazis dehumanized the Jewish population. Stripping them of their humanity – of their legitimacy not only as human beings but also as a legitimate religion – made it easier to load them onto trains like cattle and ship them off to death camps.
Obviously, Israel has taken extraordinary steps to ensure they will not be vulnerable like that again. Nevertheless, this viewpoint expressed by a Catholic leader clearly serves as a shot across the bow. If Judaism is not a legitimate religion, then the Jews have no legitimate claim to Israel. It thus follows that whatever steps are taken to remove them are justified.
I find myself agreeing with atheist Sam Harris at this point. This is one of those occasions where religion is contributing to the problem rather than the solution. This battle of absolutes leaves absolutely nowhere to go. I could point out that the Apostle Paul argues just the opposite – that the church has been grafted into Israel. But that would only add fuel to the fire of a theological debate that is not going to solve the problem anyway.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a political issue and should be worked out using political and diplomatic resources. The conflict is about power, violence and national identity. And while religion may play a part in all of these issues, ultimately resorting to theology as a trump card is not going to end the argument. In many ways, it will only raise the stakes.
I am disappointed that the Vatican has not been more forthcoming in condemning these remarks. Catholics, especially European Catholics, already have a spotty reputation when it comes to dealing with the Jewish people during the Nazi era. Even if it turns out that Israel is dead wrong in their occupation of Palestine, attacking them with theology is only going to deepen their resolve not to yield.
I certainly don’t claim to be smart enough to know how to end this impasse. But to quote Paul once again, the best way to overcome evil in the world is by means of doing good. My guess is the best solution will be down that path in one form or another.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.